Diplomats from 11 countries agreed Tuesday to bypass legal obstacles and begin distributing electronic copies of documents from a restricted Nazi archive, making them available to Holocaust researchers for the first time in more than a half century.
The countries governing the archive, kept by the International Tracing Service, voted to begin transferring scanned documents as soon as they are ready so that receiving institutions can begin preparing them for public use.
The decision circumvents the requirement to withhold the documents until all 11 countries ratify the 2006 treaty amendments that enabled the unsealing of the documents. Ratification is still pending in four countries, and Tuesday's vote was likely to shave several months from the distribution timetable.
Yad Vashem, which sent a representative to the meeting, welcomed the decision. "I am delighted to see this project moving forward," said the memorial's director Avner Shalev.
Until now, the files maintained in the central German town of Bad Arolsen have been used to track missing people, reunited families, and later to validate restitution claims. The Tracing Service is an arm of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Three countries, the United States, France and Germany, pledged to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to offset costs for preparing and transmitting the papers, said the delegate.
The decision to expedite the transfer to national archives in the 11 nations was meant to avoid further delays in allowing Holocaust survivors to find their own stories and family histories, and for historians to seek new insights into Europe's darkest period.
The archive contains Nazi records on the arrest, transportation, incarceration, forced labor and deaths of millions of people from the year the Nazis built their first concentration camp in 1933 to the end of the war. It also has a vast collection of postwar records from displaced persons camps.
The name index refers to 17.5 million victims, and the documents fill 25 linear kilometers of shelves. But the archive is indexed according to names, making it difficult to use them for historical research.
Seized by the Allies from concentration camps and Nazi offices after of the war, the files were closed under a 1955 agreement to protect the privacy of survivors and the reputation of the dead who may have undergone humiliating medical experiments or been falsely accused of crimes.
Last year's amendments to the 1955 accords, reached after years of negotiation and resistance by several members, stipulated that some privacy guarantees remain. A single copy of the documents would be available for each of the 11 member states to be used "on the premises of an appropriate archival repository."
Each government was expected to take into account "the sensitivity of certain information" the files may contain, the new agreement said.
But some US survivors expressed dismay that the documents will remain restricted to a single place, namely the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and that they won't have unfettered access.
"I'm anxious, because 105 people from my immediate family did not make it. I am the only survivor," said David Schaecter, of Miami, Florida. "How do I obtain what I am rightfully entitled to obtain (to know) what happened to these 105 people," he said.
Earlier at the meeting, delegates worked out a detailed arrangement for historians to use the original files at their home location in Bad Arolsen, where there is no facility to assist outside researchers. The archive is subject to German privacy laws, which are more strict than laws in the United States and some other countries.
In addition to the United States, Israel and France indicated they also would seek copies.
The seven countries that have ratified the treaty amendments are the United States, Israel, Poland, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Britain. Endorsement was awaited from Luxembourg, Greece, Italy and France.